–“As Rilke says, there are no classes for beginners in life, the most difficult thing is always asked of one right away.” (From “A Sport and a Pastime” by James Salter).

Yes, a child is asked the most difficult thing right away. For some, poverty creates a hoard of social ills that surround them. A tragic few are born addicted to narcotics or stunted by booze. Babies gasp in the toxic sludge of environments smothered by despair and anger. They are hounded by parents whose chronic drug abuse, alcoholism and mental cruelty create an atmosphere of persistent, unrelenting danger. Chances are they hear little but the chaotic noise of argument or television. Stress is a steady brain-smog.

Neuroscience and early childhood studies confirm the deadly effects on children of toxic environments bereft of positive language influence. As reported in the January 12, 2015 issue of The New Yorker Magazine (“The Talking Cure” by Margaret Talbot), a classic study conducted by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas researchers peered beyond the classroom to examine what went on inside homes in order to analyze the long-standing educational “achievement gap” between and among social classes. In all, Hart and Risley analyzed in detail more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their language-learning young children across a demarcated spectrum of socio-economic levels. Family analysis revealed some similarities in how children from different classes and economic environments are disciplined, toilet-trained and groomed.   Researchers also discovered that wealthier parents talked more to their children and interacted with them more on basic physical levels. Among professional families, children heard an average of twenty-one hundred spoken words each hour. Among working-class families the average was twelve hundred and fifty, while among welfare families the average was six hundred and twenty. Tracking their subjects into school and subjecting them to IQ tests, Hart and Risley discovered that the more parents talked to their children the higher children scored on IQ tests and, not surprisingly, the larger were the children’s vocabularies and the faster each child’s vocabulary grew over time. Critics proclaimed the research a form of social imperialism. Critics also complained that Hart and Risley hadn’t examined the kind of talk employed. Yet, the researchers had in fact examined the nature of the talk among family members and found a “greater richness of nouns, modifiers and past-tense verbs,” and more conversations on subjects initiated by the children themselves among middle and upper income families than among working-class and welfare families. Among the more affluent families, talk was more affirmative, interactions defined not only as complimentary, but also that built a platform for advancing the child’s original thought. To be fair, the Hart-Risley sample was small and many researchers since have discovered large disparities among well-off families as well; researchers have also found that large numbers of less well-off parents talk a lot to their children. And there is plenty of research to show that low-income children can succeed, though many of them don’t and can’t. Even better than talk, it seems, is reading with children. “Motherese” wherein moms (or dads for that matter if they can manage it) use brightly inflected language to engage a baby’s attention, has proven very effective to develop a child’s language skills, vocabulary, and attention. Picture books have lots of interesting words—more than a parent’s usual vocabulary. Picture books are three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t common, a larger proportion even than everyday language between two adults. They’re important in child development as well. The message is clear: There are structural, racial, ethnic and economic divides that separate children into the well-off and the less so and these divides are growing larger every year. Any immersion in conversation, music, picture books or out-loud reading can help children get through those difficult things they’re asked right away. And until something happens to bridge the growing inequality gap, that’s about all one can do at home.

Make no mistake, the reading life begins early. Picture reading, pretending to read, learning to read, reading out loud and being read-to, each constitutes an important stage in a serious approach to life-long reading. The reading life is as elusive as a trout in a big river. Being able to read the river is essential to hooking the trout, that along with patience and discipline. We recall the words of Joyce Carol Oates: “Obviously, the so-called creative impulse beings in childhood, when we are enthusiastic artists…”

A childhood of being read to, what a spectacular thing! Here’s what Alberto Manguel (In his fabulous “A History of Reading”) had to say about Robert Louis Stevenson’s early reading life:

“Stevenson attributed his sense of the dramatic and the music of his prose to the bedtime stories of his childhood nurse, Alison Cunningham, “Cummie”. She read him ghost stories, religious hymns, Calvinist tracts and Scottish romances, all of which eventually found their way into his fiction. ‘It’s you that gave me the passion for drama Cummie’, he confessed to her as a grown man. ‘Me, Master Lou? I never put a foot inside a playhouse in my life.’ ‘Ay woman,’ he answered. ‘But it was the grand dramatic way ye had of reciting the hymns.’ Stevenson himself did not learn to read until the age of seven, not out of laziness but because he wanted to prolong the delights of hearing the stories come to life. This our author calls the ‘Scheherazade syndrome.’”

One would expect Kafka to have an early reading life as well, and he did. “What were Kafka’s books? As a child, we’re told, he read fairy tales, Sherlock Holmes stories, travel narratives of foreign lands; as a young man the works of Goethe, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Dickens, Flaubert, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky. In his room, where the family bustle constantly intruded, or in his office on the second floor of the Workman’s Accident Insurance Institution, he would often try, on stolen time, to pore over whatever book he had with him: searching for meaning, each meaning neither more nor less valid than the next; constructing a whole library of texts unfurled like a scroll on the open page in front of him.” (Manguel, “A History of Reading”)

Picture Reading—Pretending to Read—Learning to Read—Reading Out Loud, and finally, Silent Solitary Reading, all these stages are necessary to cultivate the imagination and discipline required to become serious about books. These stages we never forget, once we’ve gone through them.

There was, in my own case, the “reading circle” in Mrs. Blair’s third grade class at Hyde Elementary where, one memorable winter afternoon, seven or eight of us scrawny urchins sat around on tiny chairs reading from some primer or other, as delightful Mrs. Blair looked on, gently correcting and urging us forward. A couple of us singled out a poor reader and when he made a mistake (we often “bet” on whether he’d get through his section), we laughed and mocked him. (From Manguel’s “A History of Reading”—But not only totalitarian governments fear reading. Readers are bullied in schoolyards and in locker rooms as much as in government offices and prisons.) Mrs. Blair, who we all loved, finally had enough and sent us to the Principal, my one and only trip. I felt blighted and ashamed. I felt as though I’d committed some deep sin not only against the poor kid who stumbled, now and then, over words I thought were easily recognized and pronounced, but also against Mrs. Blair, against the book itself, The Brother and Sisterhood of the Book, and deeper down, against the words themselves that were conjuring up another, better, deeper, more satisfying world, words that demanded nothing of us children while promising joy and fulfillment. I never ever mocked another reader, not out of shame, but from duty to the discipline and from fellow feeling. I don’t remember that kid’s name, or even his face. But I hope he’s happy and in the reading life and has forgotten all about that horrid third-grade lout who bullied him.